10 Aug 2015

Review - Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Title: Daniel Deronda

Author: George Eliot

Rating: 5/5 stars


Gwendolen Harleth gambles her happiness when she marries a sadistic aristocrat for his money. Beautiful, neurotic, and self-centred, Gwendolen is trapped in an increasingly destructive relationship, and only her chance encounter with the idealistic Deronda seems to offer the hope of a brighter future. Deronda is searching for a vocation, and in embracing the Jewish cause he finds one that is both visionary and life-changing. Damaged by their pasts, and alienated from the society around them, they must both discover the values that will give their lives meaning. 

My thoughts:
Daniel Deronda was the first George Eliot novel I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Pleasure, I say, because a lot of joy was involved in this reading experience. This classic was also the first of the books I’ve read this year that made it to my favourite shelf. Let me tell you why.

The subject Daniel Deronda deals with is one that required a lot of courage to write about, especially the way George Eliot did. She introduces us to the life of Jews and the ways of the Jewish community in 19th century England and all the while she does it by showing them in a favourable light. Anti-Semitism was definitely a thing in Victorian England, like it had been in earlier periods and in other places since Biblical times, but in Daniel Deronda George Eliot made an attempt to fight against this phenomena and I was pleased to realize it.

Daniel is a young man who doesn’t know what to do with his life. He feels an extreme amount of empathy for persons in need; empathy is the most important thing that defines him and drives his actions. The reason for his willingness to help is rooted in his childhood: he doesn’t know who his mother is and is not sure if his uncle is actually his uncle or his father. All the pain he feels in connection with his uncertain parentage leads him to help unburden other human beings. 

To tell the truth Daniel sometimes seemed too perfect to me. Such a level of selflessness that he presented was too unrealistic to me sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I loved him, but I don’t think I can come across a person like him in the real world. At times I felt sorry for him, because he felt guilty and miserable when he couldn’t help – when he was unable to help. His relationship with Gwendolen was eating him inside and he was blaming himself when he should have realized the girl wasn’t his responsibility.

I couldn’t not partly agree if someone said Daniel isn’t the real protagonist of this novel though. Gwendolen Harleth’s story of redemption and tragic enlightenment in many ways outweighs the importance of Daniel’s path-searching struggles. We find ourselves getting involved in Gwendolen’s tale in the very beginning of the book – Daniel appears for a brief time, then we don’t even meet him until we are well into the book. Gwendolen goes through so many things: having to grow up, getting poor, oppression, tragedy – and the end of the story finds her clinging to someone and being afraid to fall. The depth of the character is amazing, the transformation from a spoiled, confident child to a completely changed adult is striking.

I liked that the book wasn’t a love story – in my interpretation it wasn’t, anyway. There is love in it, but if you’re looking for something like Pride and Prejudice, don’t turn to Daniel Deronda. There’s a lot of feeling involved and the novel is utterly romantic in this sense, but love is not the most important of feelings here. For example, Mirah, the little Jewess, who is Daniel’s (other?) love interest was not such a profoundly discovered character as Gwendolen was.

Another important person in the novel is Mordecai, a young Jew, who changes Daniel’s life. With Mordecai mysticism comes into the picture and one cannot help but wonder at this character. He is peculiar, a prophetic air surrounds him; his obsession with Daniel made me feel second-hand embarrassment not just once, yet I envied him for his faith and he seemed to be a creature filled with love for others. It cannot be denied that he is a charismatic person and he has to be to make his speeches about Jewish nationality effective. Sometimes my jaw dropped at how much his speeches could touch me.

There are some well-known 19th century/romantic themes too that you can meet in this book: marriage (it covers married life as well – not a pleasant marriage, mind), consumption (seriously, has anyone ever read a 19th century novel in which no one died of this illness?), parlour music and musical talent etc…

Daniel Deronda is a thick book (more than 700 pages), but it is most definitely worth to read it. The story is highly enjoyable, the characters are interesting and deep (even the side characters) and you will be left with a lot of feels and thoughts to meditate on, I guarantee that. Happy reading!

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